Something very small and yet enormous happened this past week.
On Feb. 2, two women who have been fighting for the freedom of Mumia Abu-Jamal, filmmaker/professor Johanna Fernandez and National Lawyers Guild Executive Director Heidi Boghosian, visited Abu-Jamal, as each has done in the past, but this time, because he has been moved off of death row, for the first time since 1995, he was able to greet them with a hug–free of the leg shackles and handcuffs gratuitously attached to him during his visit sessions on death row at SCI Greene prison.
For the first time too, since 1995, there is a photo to record that seemingly mundane and deceptively ordinary-looking event.
Pennsylvania, for no reason at all except vindictiveness and institutional sadism, does not allow prisoners who are on its death row to have any physical contact whatsoever — not even the hug of a loved one or a child or a grandchild. Nor are cameras allowed to be brought to the carefully monitored visits, in which the prisoners are separated from their visitors by a thick plexiglass divider, and are, in a further effort at humiliation that has no security purpose whatsoever, kept shackled and cuffed.
As Fernandez says of that meeting, which took place in a large visitors’ area at SCI Mahanoy prison which was filled with many other families and friends meeting other prisoners at that institution, “When we entered, we immediately saw Mumia standing across the room. We walked toward each other and he hugged both of us simultaneously. We were both stunned that he would embrace us so warmly and share his personal space so generously after so many years in isolation.”
Abu-Jamal, in the photo recording this meeting — his second at the new general prison, the first having been a meeting with his wife Wadiya on January 30 — looks surprisingly youthful for his 57 years. He jokingly told his two visitors the explanation is that “Black don’t crack!” but the sad truth is that 30 years in solitary confinement meant three decades with no exposure to the sun’s damaging ultraviolet radiation.
It is a new chapter in Abu-Jamal’s struggle. He is now free of the threat of execution, but remains condemned instead to the slow death of a sentence to life in prison without possibility of parole for his conviction of the murder of Philadelphia Police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981–a conviction that was tainted by prosecutorial misconduct, perjured prosecution witness testimony, judicial bias and error. Though the federal courts ruled he had served 20 years on death row unconstitutionally because of flawed instructions to the jury by his trial judge, and another 10 years there even after his sentence was overturned because of the political pressure of Faulkner’s widow and the Fraternal Order of Police, his only hope of release from this new kind of hell at this point, aside from a governor’s pardon, would be for new evidence of innocence to surface that could win him a new trial.
That said, the picture above itself speaks loudly of the victory that has already been won.
DAVE LINDORFF, a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, is the author of the book “Killing Time: An Investigation into the Death Penalty Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal” (Common Courage Press, 2003). At the time his book was being published, there was no current photo of Abu-Jamal available because of the prison ban on cameras, so Dave’s artist brother Gary, for the cover art, took a photo of a younger Abu-Jamal and “aged” it as best he could.